WHEN I SET out to write about street children, many years ago, I felt prompted to read Charles Dickens’ classic Oliver Twist, the first book to expose the plight of abandoned kids in the big city. Knowing only the popularized version of the story, I was not aware that in the original, young Oliver is actually the son of a wealthy man.
The villainous gang leader Fagin knows this, however, and sets out to ensure that Oliver is denied his “rightful inheritance”—surely a profound picture of the way Oliver’s real-life, present-day contemporaries around the world are being kept from what is their due: love, care, and nurture.
Are the millions of street kids simply the result of poverty and parental failure, or might there be something else going on? For me there was a clue in further reading of Dickens’ tale, which finds Oliver smuggled him away from Fagin’s gang, at one stage, to a safe house in the country. One evening, as he dozes by the window:
Suddenly, the scene changed; the air become close and confined; and he thought, with a glow of terror, that he was in [Fagin’s] house again. There sat the hideous old man, in his accustomed corner, pointing at him and whispering to another man, with his face averted, who sat beside him.
“Hush, my dear!’’ he thought he heard [Fagin] say; “it is he, sure enough. Come away.”
Oliver wakes with a start.
Good God! what was that, which sent the blood tingling to his heart, and deprived him of his voice, and of power to move! There—there—at the window—close before him—so close, that he could have almost touched him before he started back: with his eyes peering into the room, and meeting his: there stood [Fagin].
Alerted by Oliver ’s cries, the others in the house rush outside, but search as they might there is no sign of anyone.
“It must have been a dream, Oliver,” says one of his benefactors.
“Oh no, indeed, sir,” replied Oliver, shuddering at the very recollection of the old wretch’s countenance; “I saw him too plainly for that…”
This seemingly rather obscure episode became more interesting to me in the light of comments on the book by scholar Angus Wilson, who referred to the “certain supernatural element implied in the diabolic character of Fagin.”
Observing that Fagin, whom Dickens also calls the “merry old gentleman”—a term commonly used to refer to the devil back in those days—is “an extraordinary compound of the supernatural, extreme realism, and macabre humor,” Wilson noted the “sense of pervasive evil” embodied in the character.
All this became even more interesting when, just a few days after reading the book and Wilson’s commentary, I spoke with one of the leaders of a rescue house for street kids in Sao Paolo, Brazil. The director talked of the struggles, the ups and downs, the two-paces-forward-and-then-three-back nature of working with the street kids as they swung from a desire to get away from the gutters, to enjoying every moment there—or at least saying that they did.
“There’s a lot of patience involved in reaching out to them,” he told me. “But one of the things I am aware of is the strong spiritual warfare that’s involved in the lives of these young kids.”
Then he added, unprompted: “It’s really interesting, you know, over the years I have heard this story told back to me time and again, whether from the kids themselves or our workers in the program… There comes a certain point when they have been with us when they say that someone will appear to them in front of the window and beckon with their hand, saying, ‘Come, come…’ It’s somebody asking them to go out into the streets…
“I have come to the conclusion with some of the others here that there definitely seems to be some kind of manifestation of an evil spirit that calls them to go back to the street. I have heard the story too often for it to be a coincidence, as far as I am concerned… We believe it is in fact a destructive force aimed at a whole generation here.”
Adapted from my book Street Children: The Tragedy and Challenge of the World’s Millions of Modern-Day Oliver Twists, available in print and e-editions, online and in-store.